Thumbnail Sketch of Needham’s History
— by Gloria Greis, Executive Director, Needham Historical Society
Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the area of Needham lay within the territory of the Massachusetts, an Algonkian-speaking tribe related to the Wampanoags on the coast. Artifacts excavated in Needham showed that Native American communities had lived here for nearly 8000 years. The European settlement of Needham began in the 1640s as a part of the large Dedham Grant. The Needham land was purchased from tribal leader William Nehoiden for 10 pounds in cash, 40 acres of land, and 40 shillings worth of corn.
The early settlers made their living as farmers. Farming in Needham has always required some ingenuity. Tucked into a loop in the Charles River, Needham ground is low-lying and damp. The familiar English crops – wheat, barley and rye – could not thrive in Needham’s poor soils. Even Indian Corn, a staple of the new Massachusetts Bay Colony, had limited success. Instead of grain, therefore, Needham farmers relied upon the products more suited to their riverside lands – garden crops, hay, and especially cattle. They also gathered produce from the river, including reeds and alewife.
By 1711, settlement had spread far enough that the arduous weekly trek to Dedham for church services had become a hardship. There were about 250 people living here, enough to justify the establishment of a new parish and town government. The Farmers’ Petition seeking a new parish was granted by the General Court on November 6, 1711, and the new town was given the name Needham, after the English village of Needham Market (a neighbor of the English town of Dedham). The First Parish church and the center of the new town were located at the intersection of the roads now known as Nehoiden Street and Central Avenue. The parsonage, the cemetery, the meeting hall, school, post office and tavern were all located there as well.
Needham remained a largely agricultural town until the mid-1800s. In 1853, the first rail line was laid, connecting Needham to Boston. Denied access to the town center at Nehoiden Street, the rail line was diverted southward into the largely-empty Great Plain. The presence of the railroad drew both businesses and residents away from the old town center and toward Great Plain Avenue and the surrounding streets. The Baptist and Congregational parishes also placed their new churches there. In 1879, the First Parish church was lifted up onto rollers and moved to its current location on Dedham Avenue, firmly establishing Great Plain Avenue as the new town center.
Rail access to Needham was extended not only for commercial purposes, but also to accommodate the “Back Bay Fill”. Starting in 1859, gravel was transported from Needham to Boston to fill in the Back Bay for residential use. For nearly 15 years, over 1200 freight cars per day were loaded with gravel dug from the area that now forms the Industrial Center and the Route 128 interchange.
Also in the 1850s, Needham began to see the development of industry, especially in Needham Heights. Knitters from the English Midlands, displaced by economic changes in their own country, migrated to Needham and the surrounding towns to reestablish their businesses. The most famous of these was the William Carter Company, which today still produces fine knitwear (though no longer in Needham). In 1890 there were more than 15 companies manufacturing knitted garments in Needham Heights. By about 1900, the demand for labor in these factories brought an influx of new immigrants to Needham — not only from England, but also from Ireland, Italy and Poland.
Farming continued to be an important factor in the local economy. By the late 1800s, the main agricultural goods produced in Needham were poultry, flowers, and dairy products. There were at least eight commercial dairy farms in Needham in 1900. Flowers were grown for the Boston and wider market. The most famous greenhouses were those of Needham’s “Pansy King”, Denys Zirngiebel, on South Street. Zirngiebel was also the grandfather of the artist NC Wyeth, who was born and raised in Needham.
Needham suffered a setback in its growth in April 1881, when West Needham was granted permission by the General Court to separate from Needham and form the new town of Wellesley. Their successful petition was the seventeenth attempt to effect this separation, reflecting long-standing disputes between the two sections of town that dated back into the late 1700s. The separation reduced the land and population of Needham by about half.
The farming and knitting industries sustained Needham’s economy until the middle of the 20th century. By the 1950s, however, both began to decline in favor of new industries and technologies. The construction of Route 128, “America’s Technology Highway”, carried the intellectual capital of Boston’s universities out to the land-rich western suburbs, to create a hub of technological innovation. The Needham Industrial Center, built on the land stripped for the Back Bay Fill, was the first such business/industrial center in the country. The Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, America’s newest and most innovative engineering school, was built in Needham and dedicated in 2002.
Today Needham is primarily a residential suburb of Boston. Ready access to the city and to the western part of the state is a boon to both businesses and residents. The fine schools and the strong sense of community keep the town vibrant and growing.